It’s the most wonderful time of the year for hockey fans. The predictions and previews are almost over, and it’s finally time to drop the puck and start the wonderful journey known as the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. We polled some of the staff to chip in their final thoughts and predictions on the first round.
My heart says Penguins in 5, but my head says Penguins in 6. I think the Penguins will continue their recent stretch of dominance at home and open the series 2-0. I have an afternoon game in Philly penciled, penned, and sharpied in as a loss. What happens in Game 4 determines whether the series goes 5 games or 6 games, in my opinion. — @mikedarnay
When you put four of the NHL’s top 10 scorers in the same series together you can expect some goals to be scored, regardless of who is between the pipes for either side. The two teams combined for 31 goals in four meetings this year and I expect more of the same in this series. The difference maker in this matchup belongs to the Pens, who can spread that scoring out across four lines. I trust playoff Matt Murray to find his form and outplay whoever is in goal for the Flyers. Penguins in 6 — @rjnaugle2
I wish I was bold enough to call for the sweep, as disrespectful as it sounds. If “playoff Matt Murray” shows up — you know, the guy who has won an amazing 71% of his 31 career playoff starts with a .928 save percentage and a 21-to-2 difference in “quality starts” vs. “really bad starts” — then it will be elementary. But he’s been shaky this season, and you have to respect the high-end talent, skill, and pride the Flyers have. Still, everything the Flyers do well (score goals, possess skill forwards), the Penguins are better at. Everything the Pens are weak at (defense, PK, goalies), there the Flyers are weaker still. Then there are clear edges for Pittsburgh (power play, coaching). It should be way too much for Philly...this year. Penguins in 5 — @hooks_orpik
I’ve broken down this series in as many ways as I possibly can. Crunched all the numbers, combed through all the stats, systems, depth charts, special teams, and goaltending. Discussed this series extensively with my friends who are Flyers beat writers and fans, and I still can’t find one huge advantage the Flyers have over the Penguins. This is going to be a wash. The only thing that makes me nervous is that odd 3 p.m. puck drop in Philly on Sunday. I know I’m going to jinx the team somehow with this prediction, but nothing about the Flyers makes me think they can win more than one game. Penguins in 5 — @kaitdivi
This is the premiere other series for Pens fans to watch, since the winner here plays the winner of Pittsburgh-Philly in Round 2. Columbus and Washington look fairly well-matched on paper. Big questions will be: can Sergei Bobrovsky shake the ghosts of playoffs past (3-10 career record, .887 save%) and be able and limit Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals? Will Matt Niskanen “accidentally” hit Artemi Panarin in the head with his stick (#NeverForget #BuryNisky)? How will starting with backup (but better-playing) goalie Philipp Grubauer help or hurt Washington’s chances? In the end, the metrics say Columbus has a big advantage at 5v5. The Caps huge edge on both special teams. We’re seeing that the punchline the Caps will be this playoff year is giving the Blue Jackets their franchise’s first series win in a tight, close-fought series. Blue Jackets in 7 — @hooks_orpik
Ahhhhhhhh...I love when a good rivalry meets in the playoffs. People endlessly trip over themselves to criticize the current playoff format, but this is what it’s all about, right ? The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are one of the best time periods in sports, and this is no different.
We’ve got a first round matchup between the fourth and seventh best regular season teams, who kind of hate each other! There’ll be so many storylines about 2013 and “it was 4-1” that bounce between the past and the present. There will be enough dynamite and firepower to go around. Leafs in 7 — @mikedarnay
Tampa Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
A meeting between two sides with potential Hart Trophy finalists, Nikita Kucherov for the Lightning and Taylor Hall for the Devils. The biggest issue for the Devils is the scoring drop off between Hall and the nex closest skater. It’s staggering. That’s a problem the Lightning don’t have with scoring talent up and down the roster. The Devils are a fun story and it’s nice to finally see Taylor Hall in a playoff series but the Lightning are just too deep in every area for the Devils to hang with them. Lightning in 5 — @rjnaugle2
If you weren’t paying attention you may have missed the Jets finishing with the NHL’s second best record this season. They outpaced their first round opponent, the Wild, by 13 points but had to settle for second in the Central behind the Predators. The Jets are an offensive machine but are backstopped by Connor Hellebuyck, who set a new single season wins record by an American goaltender. Losing Ryan Suter for the season (broken ankle) will prove too costly for the Wild. Jets in 5 — @rjnaugle2
This series is a total toss up.
The Sharks earned a 3-1-0 record against the Ducks, who fell to 1-1-2 in the four times they met this season. San Jose also owns the statistical advantage in just about every category (higher goals scored, higher expected goals, higher shot attempts, and higher powerplay percentage). Goalie Martin Jones is also having the best season of his career. From a stats standpoint, the Sharks should roll over the Ducks, however...
...Anaheim has a fellow named John Gibson in net. It seems as though it’s all on his shoulders. He’s the top candidate for the Vezina, his .924 save percentage ranks second only to Antti Raanta, who’s played 48 fewer games, and he’s the only goaltender in the league with a SV% above .920 over the past three years (via The Athletic).
However, I think the Sharks can break him down, but it’ll take seven games. Relying solely on your goalie to push you through the playoffs is a dangerous game — one I don’t believe Anaheim can win. Sharks in 7 — @kaitdivi
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings
I willingly fell on this double-edged sword, picking the two western conference series that could end up going either way. The Golden Knights and the Kings tied in their season series at two wins apiece, and what’s even more average than their regular season head-to-head results is how average they both are on paper. That’s great for a new team like Vegas; LA? Not so much.
The Knights shocked the world with their success in their debut season, and looked surprisingly good a lot of the time, but they’ve completely plateaued in the final stretch. There’s also skepticism on which playoff version of Marc-Andre Fleury is going show up. The Kings are equipped with MVP candidate Anze Kopitar and the best penalty kill in the league, which makes them a favorite for me. It’s been a great ride Vegas, but the luck stops here. Kings in 7 — @kaitdivi
Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
Colorado is a one-line team, but with Rantanen-MacKinnon-Landeskog, what a line it is. Still, Nashville has so much depth and is primed for another deep playoff run. It would be great to see the upstart young Avs make a competitive series out of this, but it’s tough to see that on paper. Look for Nashville to try and finish this off early to rest and keep healthy for the monumental second round matchup looming with Winnipeg. Predators in 5 — @hooks_orpik